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Desiree Keegan

President Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of education Betsy DeVos has been met with opposition from North Shore educators. Photo from Senate committee website

Many North Shore superintendents and educators are concerned with President Donald Trump’s (R) nominee for secretary of education: Betsy DeVos, chairman of The Windquest Group, a privately-held investment and management firm based in Michigan, to serve as secretary of education. According to her website, the Michigan resident has a history in politics spanning more than 35 years. She was elected as chairman of the Michigan Republican Party four times, and worked in a leadership capacity for campaigns, party organizations and political action committees, her website states.

DeVos went before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions for a confirmation hearing Jan. 17.

“Any programs and initiatives that attempt to weaken public education by diverting funds away from it … do not have my support.”

—Paul Casciano

“I share President-elect Trump’s view that it’s time to shift the debate from what the system thinks is best for kids to what moms and dads want, expect and deserve,” DeVos said during her opening remarks at the hearing. “Why, in 2017, are we still questioning parents’ ability to exercise educational choice for their children? I am a firm believer that parents should be empowered to choose the learning environment that’s best for their individual children. The vast majority of students in this country will continue to attend public schools. If confirmed, I will be a strong advocate for great public schools. But, if a school is troubled, or unsafe, or not a good fit for a child — perhaps they have a special need that is going unmet — we should support a parent’s right to enroll their child in a high-quality alternative.”

DeVos’ views on public education created a stir around the country, and superintendents from the North Shore and county as a whole joined the chorus of those skeptical about the direction she might take the country’s education system.

“I have devoted my entire adult life to public education and believe it is the bedrock of our democracy,” Port Jefferson school district Superintendent Paul Casciano said in an email. “Any programs and initiatives that attempt to weaken public education by diverting funds away from it or that offer alternatives that are not subjected to the same strict standards and scrutiny that public schools must live by, do not have my support.”

Kings Park Superintendent Tim Eagen echoed many of Casciano’s concerns.

“I find President Trump’s nomination for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, to be unacceptable,” he said in an email. “Education in this country is at an important crossroads. As an educational leader and parent of two public school students, it is my goal to provide our children with a globally competitive, rigorous, relevant and challenging education that will prepare them to be active, contributing members of society.”

“As an educational leader and parent of two public school students, it is my goal to provide our children with a globally competitive, rigorous, relevant and challenging education.”

—Tim Eagan

Eagen also has concerns about DeVos’ qualifications.

“I believe that Betsy DeVos is unqualified to run the U.S. Department of Education,” he said. “She is a businesswoman and politician without any experience in public service or public education. She does not have an education degree, has no teaching experience, has no experience working in a school environment, never attended public school or a state university, and did not send her own four children to public school.”

Middle Country Central School District  Superintendent Roberta Gerold stressed that she does not support the appointment of DeVos, stating that she believes all of DeVos’ actions to date evidence a lack of support for, and understanding of public education.

“I was disappointed with her answers during the hearing – she didn’t appear to do much, if any, homework,” Gerold said. “She couldn’t seem to, for example, understand or explain the difference between growth and proficiency — very basic concepts. And her answer to whether guns should be allowed in schools — please.”

The superintendent said, though, that she is most disappointed that DeVos would even be considered for the position.

“It seems clear to me that this is purely a political appointment, not an appointment that recognizes merit or values authentic education,” Gerold said. “John King — who I don’t believe was a great champion of public education, at least had credentials that deserved respect. The new nominee does not. It’s worrisome and disconcerting….and insulting to the public education system, K–12 and beyond.”

She said her teachers, several who are community residents, are preparing a petition that requests the board of education adopt of resolution in opposition to the appointment.

“I was disappointed with her answers during the hearing – she didn’t appear to do much, if any, homework.”

—Roberta Georld

“I believe that our board will be supportive of that request,” she said. “I know that our board president is in agreement with opposing the nomination.”

The Miller Place school district’s administration and board of education drafted and passed a resolution opposing DeVos’ appointment. Superintendent Marianne Cartisano addressed the appointment in an open letter on the district’s website.

“Our concerns are twofold,” she said. “The first reservation we have is regarding the candidate’s lack of first-hand experience as an educator or administrator within the public school system. Since the majority of the children in the United States are currently being educated within the public school system, we feel that this experience is very important for an effective Secretary of Education.”

Cartisano elaborated on her other issues with DeVos.

“Her record also shows a clear bias towards private, parochial and charter schools and the use of vouchers to attend these schools,” Cartisano said. “This bias leads us to our second overarching concern with Betsy DeVos as a candidate for Secretary of Education. The concern is that Betsy DeVos has been a strong advocate for the use of public funds to attend private schools through vouchers, and this would have a direct negative impact on our public school system’s fiscal stability if it is put into effect on a national level.”

The committee will vote to either approve or deny DeVos’ nomination Jan. 31.

Victoria Espinoza and Desirée Keegan contributed reporting.

Thieves stole debit card and pin information from a Mount Sinai home

Kirby Cineas and Kareen Shepherd, both of Brooklyn, were arrested and charged with grand larceny after the pair removed mail containing a debit card and pin number from a Mount Sinai mailbox. Photos from SCPD

Suffolk County Police Identity Theft Section detectives and the United States Postal Inspection Service today arrested two Brooklyn men for stealing financial information from a Mount Sinai resident’s mailbox.

Inspectors from The U.S. Postal Inspection Service received information regarding an identity theft ring operating throughout the East Coast, targeting victims in the Mount Sinai area. Postal inspectors were able to identify potential targets and contacted the Suffolk County Police Identity Theft Unit. Officials conducted joint surveillance in four locations. As a result of this investigation, two men,  Kirby Cineas and Kareem Shepherd, both of Brooklyn, were arrested when the pair removed mail containing a debit card and pin number from a victim’s mailbox, Jan. 23 at approximately 1:15 p.m.

Cineas, 31, and Shepherd, 28, were charged with fourthdegree grand larceny and petit larceny. Shepherd was also charged with five counts of second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument for possessing multiple forged credit and debit cards.

Cineas and Shepherd are being held at the Sixth Precinct and are scheduled to be arraigned today at First District Court in Central Islip.

The investigation is ongoing.

Smithtown West's Chris Crespo prepares to move the ball across the court around Centereach's Chris Witherspoon. Photo by Desirée Keegan

It’s raining “threes.”

A total 15 3-pointers swished through the netting on Centereach’s court Jan. 17. The Cougars got off to a hot start from long range thanks to senior Jon Agostino, who hit three of the first four treys in the game, but the Smithtown West boys’ basketball team only allowed Centereach to score one more after that in the Bulls’ 87-52 win.

Smithtown West’s Greg Giordano scores his first of three 3-pointers. Photo by Desirée Keegan

Coming off a big win over Copiague Jan. 10 — a 74-67 overtime victory after Chris Crespo tied the game at the fourth-quarter buzzer — the senior said his team has all the confidence in the world.

“It really boosted us as a team and I think we all got closer,” Crespo said. “We definitely bonded over that game. It was the first big test I think we’ve had. We played a few hard games against Half Hollow Hills West [the only loss this season but non-league] and St. Anthony’s, and we respect all those teams, but especially in a league game against Copiague it was a different atmosphere. I really felt good, and I feel we have a lot of confidence running through us for the rest of the season.”

That confidence showed against Centereach, as the Bulls — now on an eight-game win streak — built momentum throughout its total team success.

Agostino scored all four of his 3-pointers in the first half of the contest. He knocked down his first on the Cougars’ first possession, and added another at the 1:33 mark to tie the game 8-8. Smithtown West seniors Greg Giordano and Kyle LaGuardia scored a free throw and 3-pointer, respectively, to close out the scoring for the first eight minutes, leaving the Bulls up 12-8.

“In spite of our slow start in the first quarter, we were able to provide a strong second quarter and basically end the game in the third,” Giordano said. “It always amazes me how resilient we are and how we are able to get so many contributions.”

Three Bulls scored in the first, and two others contributed in the team’s 24-point second quarter.

Centereach’s Jon Agostino scores a 3-pointer. Photo by Desirée Keegan

“This was really a great game,” Smithtown West head coach Mike Agostino said. “Defensively, we played consistent, but I thought our ball movement was the difference. You could see when the ball moves, people get open and we knock down shots.”

Senior Gordon Shouler and junior Michael Gannon helped extend West’s lead to 36-20 by halftime.

Shouler tacked on two of his team-high four 3-pointers in the second, and added the other two in the third.

“Copiague is arguably one of the best teams in our league this year, and after getting a win coming from behind, getting out here and playing a good team, we were ready to go,” Shouler said. “We were very confident, and the biggest thing was just not having a letdown. You beat a team like that, you win a good game like that, you want to come out and carry that momentum, and we did that.”

Gannon added 11 points in the second, including a basket of his own from beyond the arc, and a pair of free throws. Giordano, who finished with a team-high 17 points, added two assists on Gannon’s scores.

“We perform with consistency,” Agostino said of his team. “We know who we are, we’ve won a lot of games the last couple of years and we’re confident. We know who we are and we’re going to play our way, and as hard and we’re going to play in a playoff game regardless of our opponent.”

The head coach said he was excited to see the team reach its offensive potential, finding the basket more than it has been. On days like that, he said he wishes he could play 11 players at a time, instead of five.

Smithtown West’s Kyle LaGuardia makes a layup. Photo by Desirée Keegan

“They all practice hard and they all work hard every day,” he said. “It’s good to get guys in. These guys are capable — they’re all capable. And when they get the time they’re going to be able to do big things with it.”

This is true for freshman Michael Behrens, who seized his opportunity off the bench in the fourth quarter and scored nine points to help put the game out of reach. Behind Giordano was Shouler with 14 points, and Gannon with 13.

Crespo, who finished with eight points, said he’s excited to see his Bulls playing team basketball.

“I have no complaints,” he said. “We moved the ball beautifully and we were knocking down shots. Gordon and Greg form the outside and Kyle and myself were finishing around the basket. We’re really, really coming together great and I have high hopes for the rest of the season if we keep this up.”

It’s the kind of mentality Agostino said he stresses to his players, about continuing to focus on executing plays and not letting the other team disrupt how they play. And the boys have bought into it, building on the win total with each season over the last few years.

“Coach always says just play your game and the rest will follow, and that’s exactly what we did,” Giordano said. “Our defense kept us in the lead until our offense was able to connect and build a big lead. I couldn’t be more excited about the way our team has progressed throughout the season, and feel like we have a chance to do something really special.”

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Lauren Hansen drives to the basket. Photo by Desirée Keegan

Hannah Lorenzen’s shot may not have been falling during warm-ups, but luckily that didn’t carry over into the game. During the first half of her Ward Melville girls’ basketball team’s matchup against Longwood, she was on fire, and it fueled a 57-39 comeback win Jan. 3 that keeps the Patriots atop the League I standings.

The senior scored 14 points in the first two quarters, and sophomore Lauren Hansen finished with a game-high 24 points, 19 of which were scored in the second half, for a balanced and potent offensive performance.

Hannah Lorenzen leaps to the board for a layup. Photo by Desirée Keegan

“I wasn’t sure how it was going to go, but once I started hitting my shots I felt it,” Lorenzen said. “I think our defense wasn’t as great as it usually is. We were a little nervous, frazzled, but once we started playing our game we got back into our flow.”

After missing on all four of her attempts in the first quarter, Hansen opened up the scoring for the second quarter with a layup, reached to bank a layup while being fouled, and completed the three-point play to pull the Patriots closer, 20-14. After a Longwood score, Lorenzen swished a 3-pointer, two free throws and her second 3 to tie the game, 22-22.

She said head coach Bruce Haller told the team coming into the matchup that it needed to be fast and react quickly to play with Longwood.

“They fast break a lot and mark up then instead of when we get back, so we had to adjust to that,” Lorenzen said.

Longwood countered with a 3-point field goal of its own, but Lorenzen banked a layup with eight seconds left and her buzzer-beating third 3-pointer left Ward Melville just behind, 27-26.

“We had to slow down and take a deep breath, relax with our shots and be patient on defense,” Lorenzen said. “We had to play our game.”

Her Patriots did just that.

Senior Taylor Tripptree and Hansen teamed up to tally 14 of the Patriots’ total 16 points in the third quarter. At the end of the eight minutes, the Patriots edged ahead 42-37.

Lauren Hansen maneuvers around a Longwood opponent as she makes her way down the court. Photo by Desirée Keegan

“I think we were hyped up because we wanted to win — we had jitters,” Hansen said of her team’s vibe in the first half, adding that she and the team needed to keep pushing despite missing points and being down. “I persevered, just kept shooting. I think it defines the culture of our team. Sometimes we start slow, but we always pick it up in the second half.”

She wasn’t kidding. Hansen scored 13 of her team’s 16 points in the final quarter, on two 3-pointers, a three-point play and two field goals.

“I think every game, every day we get better together, our chemistry gets better and better and we improve every single game,” she said.

With the win, Ward Melville remains No. 1 in League I, but instead of being in a three-way tie, the team is now tied with just Commack. The Patriots will face the Cougars on the road Jan. 10 at 5:45 p.m.

Tripptree said she was happy to see her team clean up its act against Longwood, but said the rushing and missed layups forced the team out of its comfort zone.

“We had to play at our pace — not let them change our game,” she said. “We didn’t let the bad calls or missed shots affect us. We just can’t be digging ourselves into holes we’re forced to dig out of. We stayed strong and kept each other up, though, and we realized this was our game.”

Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O'Brien, was named Administrator of the Year earlier this year. He is seen with assistant principal James Moeller, on left, during an award ceremony. File photo from Scott O'Brien

By Desirée Keegan

Walking into Rocky Point Middle School, you’re greeted with smiles and hellos everywhere you turn. The hallways are filled with Eagles pride, whether it’s the large painting of the school’s mascot on the wall or children’s classwork lining the hallways.

Students are laughing, working diligently in classrooms or holding raffles for clubs with good causes.

The Middle School was one of just five middle and high schools in New York to receive the 2016 Inviting Award from the International Alliance for Invitational Education.

The feat wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for Principal Scott O’Brien, who was also named Administrator of the Year by the Council of Administrators and Supervisors.

Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O’Brien plays air hockey with a student inside the school’s recently-added recreation room. Photo by Desirée Keegan

O’Brien wanders about the hallways, as students smile, wave or greet him, he stops to help a student who is having trouble opening her locker. Rounding the corner he enters several classrooms to see how the teachers’ days are progressing, or to let the home economics teacher know he loved her homemade cookies.

Social studies teacher Dawn Callahan has noticed the improvements O’Brien has made first hand, being in the district for 21 years.

“It was a big change; a 150 percent turnaround of what we were experiencing,” she said, adding that she takes a lot of pride in what goes on in the district, because she grew up in Rocky Point. “Things used to be so close-minded years ago, and he made it that you had a voice. You could run ideas by him and he does the same back — you feel included in what’s going on in the building. I think all the positive change is a reflection of how hard everyone works together, and for the students.”

Because of O’Brien’s dedication to the district, and change in culture he’s created at the helm of the school, he and the rest of the staff at Rocky Point Middle School are Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for 2016.

To O’Brien, 2016 was one of the most productive and exciting years to date.

“We had many new initiatives that yielded incredible results beyond our expectation and imagination,” he said. “Getting to a place where you can be recognized and acknowledged for that high-level atmosphere takes time. I don’t think it’s something that happens overnight and it certainly isn’t something that just has to do with me as a principal.”

As part of the inviting school application process, the staff learned about what they do well, while also learning what areas to improve. Over 60 educators from all around the world came to visit the school, talk to students and observe classrooms.

“It was a proud moment for me,” O’Brien said. “We took the things we needed to work on, and we starting working on them right away.”

A survey to students was created to see what they thought was missing. An overwhelming majority wanted different ways to occupy their free time. So O’Brien partnered with the Parent-Teacher Association to use Box Top funds and create a recreation room where the kids can play during lunchtime. Inside the rec room is a basketball shoot, pingpong table, foosball table, air hockey table, an old school video arcade system, a television with a Nintendo Wii and video games, a stereo system and bean bag chairs.

“It’s really been a big hit with our kids,” O’Brien said. “They love it.”

The school also hosts club fairs at various times throughout the year to show students that there’s no one-time signup. He said he’s seen marked improvement in enrollment.

“You can take anything to his desk, and he never puts a damper on any of your ideas. He’s the best thing to ever happen to this school. He came into our lives and we all benefited from it.”

— Kristen LaBianca

“This is the age where they’re learning who they are, and they start forming their identity here, so the more opportunities we give kids at the middle school age to participate in activities, the better the end result will be,” O’Brien said. “There’s been a noteworthy increase in student achievement and graduation rate, and I feel very proud to be a significant part of that. I feel that we have such a strong culture and climate for kids and parents and staff.”

English teacher Joseph Settepani, who was named a Teacher of the Year in 2016, runs the Natural Helpers club. The group raised more than $2,000 in November for its Dimes for Diabetes cause and is currently raising money for Dogs for Dylan, after a seventh-grade student lost his three dogs in a house fire.

“I’ve had many experiences in different school environments and this is an amazing building,” he said. “Everyone comes together as a team to do everything they can. These are very, very altruistic, caring kids. They feel they can’t do enough.”

Assistant Principal James Moeller added that other changes he and O’Brien made were mixing the grade levels during lunch.

“You’d think that was a great way to keep things separate so there would be less problems, but we integrated the grades, and we found the kids interacted more with others and there was less influence of clicks,” he said. “They sort of self police one another.”

Since the school doesn’t have a playground, being that the building shares space with the high school next door, it’s tough to have recess, but a system has been worked out where during warmer months, kids can go outside and run around. Moeller said the staff loves it as teachers have noticed when the kids can burn off some energy, they’re more focused during the rest of the school day.

Pride cards were also established as a part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. Students are awarded pride cards when a faculty member sees someone displaying positive behavior, whether it be holding the door open for someone or picking up a classmate’s books after they’ve fallen on the floor.

This year, the Rocky Point Middle School was named a 2016 Inviting School, recognizing the building, one of five in New York, to for going above and beyond to display a positive and friendly learning environment for students. File photo from Scott O’Brien

“The idea behind it is to reward kids for doing the right thing, as opposed to being reactive and giving them a consequence when they make a mistake,” Moeller said.

Being a part of the school since it opened in 2002, Settepani, like Callahan, has also seen the changes O’Brien made for himself.

“It’s been an amazing transformation,” he said. “It’s evolved light years. We’re finally all on the same page. We speak about how fortunate we are to work in this type of environment — to feel supported, respected and validated. No one cares about taking credit for anything, and everyone just thinks about what they can do to help.”

Art teacher Kristen LaBianca, who has been in the district for 23 years, came over to the school the same time as O’Brien and said the positive atmosphere he has created isn’t confined within the school walls — it gets out in the community.

“Ideas are never turned away,” she said. “You can take anything to his desk, and he never puts a damper on any of your ideas. He’s the best thing to ever happen to this school. He came into our lives and we all benefited from it.”

Spanish teacher Bruce Wolper, who has been at the school for five years, said he’s enjoyed the changes during faculty meetings. He said O’Brien always starts with something positive, asking who has good news whether it be personal or in the classroom, and there’s always a laugh.

“I would walk through fire for him, and for Jim Moeller, too, who is just as good,” the 30-year teacher said. “They’re a great team. They play off each other fantastically.”

O’Brien thinks it’s a great age to feed into the kid’s self-esteem and is constantly seeing students come back wishing they were still a part of the school. Because of that, he takes tremendous pride in the work the school does.

Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O’Brien, standing in front of an Eagle Pride wall with students of the month, has been at the helm of the school for seven years. File photo from Scott O’Brien

“Other people brag about where they teach, but I feel like I really mean it,” he said, laughing. “I’ve always been able to get out of bed and say I love what I do, I can’t wait to go in and I look forward to another 20 years.”

While academic rigor and programs that challenge kids are also right up there, he said he thinks that without the right environment, the rest falls by the wayside. Although his plate may already seem full, the principal also teaches an administrative program at St. John’s University and The College of St. Rose, to instill these ideas in other future leaders.

“I know I made the right choice,” he said of choosing to become a special education teacher at the Frank J. Carasiti Elementary School 20 years ago, before becoming an assistant principal and principal at the building before making the move to the middle school. “I’ve had the opportunity to impact the lives of thousands of kids for the better and there’s nothing more meaningful than to hear from a parent years later telling me all I did for their children and appreciating the impact we’ve had on them. Not many jobs get to do that.”

He said that while garnering recognition and accolades is appreciated, he feels there’s something almost wrong with the notoriety, and said despite that, the school will continue work on improving.

“We have to challenge ourselves to do more — something bigger, something better — that drive needs to continue,” he said. “I’m so appreciative of the accolades but I feel that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. To get the recognition sometimes feels weird because this is how it’s supposed to be. And I don’t feel like my work is ever done.”

Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore and developer and owner of Landmark Properties in Rocky Point Mark Baisch team up to build the homes for returning veterans. File photos

By Desirée Keegan

Receiving keys can be a magical moment for anyone, but for Joe Cognitore and Mark Baisch, they’re more excited about handing them over.

The Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 commander and the developer and owner of Landmark Properties, respectively, have been building and giving homes to veterans for the last four years. They’ve created 11 homes so far, and this year, the duo amped up the intensity to build three homes, with a fourth in the works.

For their work in the community and for dedicating their time and efforts to honoring and helping those who served our country, Cognitore and Baisch are Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for 2016.

“It’s bittersweet,” Cognitore said. “There’s many candidates that we come across and every one of them deserves the home. Just to hear their stories is amazing.”

Veteran Deborah Bonacasa receives keys from Mark Baisch, developer and owner of Landmark Properties in Rocky Point, to her new home in Sound Beach. File photo by Desirée Keegan

Cognitore first met Baisch at a fundraiser Brookhaven Town Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro (R) was hosting. Not knowing anyone at the event, the two found themselves sitting at the same table, and Cognitore began talking about the possibility of building a home for a disabled veteran.

“I thought it’d be one and done,” Baisch said, laughing, while thinking about the first home. “I never thought it would get to this level, but what we’re able to do for these families is so good that it would be hard for me to think about not doing this.”

The two recently unveiled the 11th home for returning veterans to the Cote family, who now own a home in Miller Place. The Bonacasas and Johnsons also received homes this year.

“I’m at a loss with words for everything they did for me and my family,” Deborah Bonacasa said. She is an Air Force veteran whose husband, Staff Sgt. Louis Bonacasa from Coram, died after a suicide bomber detonated himself outside Bagram Airfield in northwest Afghanistan. “They’re professional and thoughtful. I think it’s great what they’re doing for veterans and recognizing and advocating and stepping up to do things for those who do so much for our country. This house is, and they are, a constant reminder that there are great people still out there willing to help people.”

Rocky Point social studies teacher Rich Acritelli said no one cares more about veterans — and the entire hamlet — than Cognitore.

“He’s always got the community at his heart,” he said. “He personifies everything that a citizen should be, in terms of national and local service, between being in the military and always working for the betterment of his community.”

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) was proud to see how the two stepped up for the Cote family, who were kicked out of their home when the landlord let the Sound Beach property fall into foreclosure. The family has also struggled with illness. Mother Renée Cote has acute intermittent porphyria, a rare and painful metabolic disorder that requires expensive biweekly treatments, which she has undergone for 14 years at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson. Her 7-year-old son, Zachary, was diagnosed with Grade 4 medulloblastoma, brain cancer, in June 2014, and endured 42 rounds of radiation and nine months of intense chemotherapy, until he was also diagnosed with acute intermittent porphyria.

Mark Baisch, at left sitting at table, has new homeowner Deborah Bonacasa, right, sign papers for her new home made possible by himself and VFW Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore, standing on right. File photo from VFW Post 6249

“They are literally warriors to those that need help,” Anker said. “They get out there, they understand the struggles and they’re there to help, and that’s what’s so important. When Mark heard about Zachary Cote’s situation, he came to the rescue. Talk about superheroes, they are our local superheroes.”

Cote’s husband Glen was a U.S. Army combat medic in the Gulf War, before coming home and suffering an on-the-job injury that disabled him.

“Anyone that met them couldn’t believe what a great family,” Cognitore said. “Especially Zachary, what a little gentleman.”

But Renée Cote said she can’t believe what a great group Cognitore, Baisch and the rest of the developers and donators are.

“I could sit there and write a million thank you cards, and to me, it would not be enough for what they’re doing,” she said. “And I don’t even think they realize what they’re doing. To first serve our country, and then to give back — and I mean give back in a huge way — it’s good to be surrounded by people like that. They’re angels walking the Earth.”

Baisch said his contractors and the community showed more support for the Cotes’ new home in Miller Place than on any other house. There were over 30 volunteers, some of whom have been helping Baisch since the first home. Many of them donate windows, garage doors, bathtubs and furniture. Local supermarkets and civic associations also give gift cards to help the new family acclimate to the area.

“They just continue to give and give and give every time we do one of these homes, and they never let me down,” Baisch said of his contractors. “It’s really the only way these homes could come together. We’re not a charity; we consider these homes a hand up, not a hand out. They do the best they can and it’s amazing how much they keep giving. It shocks me after 11 houses that they’re like ‘Mark, let’s do more.’”

Cognitore said he enjoys creating a community of veterans.

“Once they get into these homes, they’re a great neighbor, a great citizen, they keep up their homes, they pay their taxes, so everything works out,” he said. “It’s a win for everybody.”

The veterans appreciate that as well.

The Cote family’s new home in Miller Place as part of the local homes for returning veterans program. File photo by Kevin Redding

“It makes me feel at home knowing there are veterans out there like me,” Bonacasa said. “If we ever needed each other, we’re right there.”

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said she’s thankful that most of the homes have been built in her district.

“It’s very heartwarming,” she said of the welcome-home ceremonies. “It’s impossible to not get choked up. Especially the most recent one with the Cote family — they’ve had some significant challenges. They were struggling, and Joe and Mark saved them.”

Baisch said that the real tragedy of it all is the fact that without his help, the families wouldn’t be able to remain on Long Island.

“They had no real chance of having a family here and living here if it weren’t for these homes, so that’s the all-encompassing enjoyment out of it,” he said. “These people would have been long gone, and they’re not the types of people we’d like to see leave Long Island. They served their country and they’re Long Islanders, each and every one of them. For them to have to leave because they can’t afford to live here, there’s something wrong with that.”

Bonner said what the “dynamic duo” does shows their true character.

“Mark is very altruistic, and he’s never looking for a pat on the back about it, he just feels passionately about it and does it because he thinks it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “And Joe is a tremendous advocate for veterans and a true Patriot. Their hearts are bigger than their wallets. It’s more about doing the right thing than it is about making money.”

Baisch said as long as Landmark Properties is around, he’ll continue to do something like this.

“It’s one of the best feelings of my life,” Baisch said. “I can’t explain it. I can’t come up with words enough to tell how wonderful it feels. The thought of not continuing doing this doesn’t even enter my mind.”

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Kyra Sommerstad competes in the Suffolk County championship meet. Photo from Raymond Sommerstad

By Desirée Keegan

Kyra Sommerstad is either part fish or exceedingly dedicated to her craft.

The freshman swimmer from Port Jefferson has practice two hours a day, six or seven days a week, 11 months a year. Needless to say, the hard work continues to pay off for Kyra, who hasn’t missed a practice since the new season began in September, and as a result, she competed in the state finals for a second straight season, this time in Ithaca Nov. 18 and 19.

Kyra Sommerstad competes in the Suffolk County championship meet. Photo from Raymond Sommerstad

“Sometimes it gets a little intense, but it’s fun,” she said of her chaotic schedule. “As long as you stay determined at practice and have fun with it, you can make it through and be successful. But it was nice to see all of my hard work in the pool pay off.”

Kyra entered the state meet after earning two county titles in the 100-meter backstroke and 200 individual medley Nov. 5 at Suffolk County Community College’s Brentwood campus. She finished the backstroke in 57.16 seconds, and the intermediate medley in 2 minutes, 7.88 seconds.

“She qualified in other events she could have entered in and done equally as well,” Port Jefferson head coach Mary Fleckenstein said. “She’s mentally strong and she sets goals for herself and she works hard at practice to achieve those goals. She’s a dedicated athlete. She’s just got it all.”

While Fleckenstein has known Kyra since she was in elementary school, the freshman works primarily with Three Village Swim Club coach Mark Anderson. The club houses the nearest pool for Port Jefferson residents, and since Royals swimmers only compete as individuals, Kyra is part of a team with the club year-round.

“She’s a very gifted athlete,” Anderson said. “She’s very tall and thin — pretty much the stereotypical look for a swimmer — she’s self-determined, dedicated and the list goes on and on of the positive words you could use to describe her. Everything that you look for in a swimmer, she’s got.”

Kyra began swimming during camp and mommy-and-me days at the YMCA. She decided to try out for the Three Village team, and fell in love with the sport.

“She works hard and always comes into practice with a smile on her face, and you can see the results of that pay off at her meets. She’s certainly motivated enough to get to any level of competition she wants to.”

— Mark Anderson

“I feel very, very comfortable in the water,” she said. “It felt like a better place than playing on the field or something.”

Her competitions have continued to amp up in intensity over the last four years, and as a result of her outside training and meets, she qualified to compete at the state level as an eighth grader, after earning a county title in the 500 freestyle. Kyra reached the state finals in the freestyle and 100 backstroke last season.

“I was very nervous,” Kyra said of her first trip to the state finals. “It was different being one of the youngest people there, but I knew a lot of the girls there through club swimming, like some older kids that were seniors, so they helped me get through that.”

Although she was intimidated, she’s not someone to let emotions get in the way of her performance, according to Anderson. Her father Raymond added that his daughter tends to pull out her best performances when the pressure is on.

“The feeling of watching your kids work hard at something and then being successful, there’s no way to describe it,” Sommerstad said. “It’s the best feeling that I’ve had in my life. To get the results when you work like that is very nice to see.”

This year, Kyra finished 13th in the individual medley and 15th in the backstroke.

“I didn’t do as good as I wanted to, but I looked forward to being there, and making finals again was still exciting,” she said.

Kyra Sommerstad raises up her finger after placing first in the 100-meter backstroke and 200 intermediate medley. Photo from Port Jefferson school district

Her coach said he has enjoyed getting the time to grow with and learn about his young swimmer.

“As a coach, I develop a really close connection with a lot of them,” Anderson said. “You learn their strengths, weaknesses, how to get them motivated for a swim, how to calm them down after a bad swim, so it’s been a really great learning experience for me, and I’ve got to know Kyra the past couple of months. I’m starting to go with her to some very big swim meets, and it has been a lot of fun.”

He’s excited to see where the future will take his swimmer.

“She’s always willing to learn, she’s always listening, she takes criticism and compliments and any stroke techniques really well, and she translates it,” he said. “She works hard and always comes into practice with a smile on her face, and you can see the results of that pay off at her meets. She’s certainly motivated enough to get to any level of competition she wants to. The sky’s the limit for her.”

Kyra said she’s just enjoying the ride and all that the sport has given her so far.

“Swimming is pretty much my life right now,” she said. “I do it after school every day. It helps me digest everything that happened throughout the day, or to just think about stuff or clear my mind. I think swimming is both a mental and physical sport. You have to have the determination and confidence going into a race, and you have to be able to practice well and train hard in order to achieve your goals. And I’m doing that.”

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No. 3 overall pick Brendan Rogers, who was selected by the Colorodo Rockies, talks with members of the media. Photo by Clayton Collier

By Desirée Keegan & Clayton Collier

One Port Jefferson local was awarded another trip to the MLB Draft, held in Secaucus, N.J., from June 8 through June 10, where he experienced the sights and sounds that surround the excitement that comes about when young new talent is recognized and called upon to compete at the majors level.

Long second fiddle to the NFL and NBA drafts, mostly due to the length of time before baseball draftees make a major league impact, MLB has catapulted its draft into a unique experience in which prospects as young as 17 years old are welcomed live on television by some of the greatest to ever wear the uniform.

This was Clayton Collier’s third time covering the draft. He said every year the event continues to live up to the hype.

Baseball legends converge on MLB Network’s northern New Jersey location to ceremoniously answer the phones from their respective front office’s to hand in their draft picks for the first and second round. The remainder of the selections are made over the following two days and are announced online.

Clayton Collier was in attendance at the 2013 MLB draft, his first experience with the event. Photo from Collier
Clayton Collier was in attendance at the 2013 MLB draft, his first experience with the event. Photo from Collier

Collier was covering the event for WSOU, Seton Hall University’s radio station, which is a school that has a strong baseball program that typically has a handful of players go in the higher rounds, operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and is a local station that broadcasts into New York City.

At the 2015 draft, Collier witnessed crowds of families, former players and media members pack the glass double doors. Inside, was a large, rustic Dodger-blue door affixed with a plaque marked “42,” an ode to the civil rights trailblazer and Brooklyn-great Jackie Robinson.

Through the doorway and down a maze of hallways, is the iconic Studio 42, a set designed as a baseball stadium. In front of Collier was a mock turf field, including a pitcher’s mound, which was wedged between the Brewers’ and Tigers’ draft tables.

The overhead lights replicate the scene of a major league ballpark. The green stadium seating in the outfield, similar to those at Citi Field, is packed with families of draft hopefuls. All is arranged to face a podium, which is located at home plate in front of a large screen projecting various clips of current MLB All-Stars.

Commissioner Rob Manfred made his first appearance with his opening remarks and subsequently made 75 young men’s dream come true live on national television.

An array of 30 tables dressed to the nines in team apparel don the field.

With them, legends of each of those aforementioned clubs take their rightful seat at each of the corresponding club’s station. Philadelphia Phillies’ Mike Schmidt and Brooklyn Dodgers’ Tommy Lasorda shoot the breeze in front of the podium. Seattle Mariners’ Ken Griffey Jr. shares a laugh with Andre Dawson, originally a Montreal Expos outfielder, and company at the buffet in back. Art Stewart, a front-office executive and former director of scouting for the Kansas City Royals, asks former outfielder Johnny Damon, most notably from the Royals, Oakland Athletics, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, for the Wi-Fi password. Originally a pitcher for the Atlanta Braves and currently an active sportscaster, John Smoltz; Detroit Tigers’ shortstop Alan Trammel; Luis Gonzalez, most known for his time spent as an outfielder with the Arizona Diamondbacks; and David Cone, a former pitcher and now commentator for the New York Yankees on the YES Network, who pitched the 16th perfect game in baseball history, struck out 19 batters to tie for the second-most ever in a game, and 1994 Cy Young Award winner are some of the legends that continue to flood in. Manfred then comes out to mingle with them all.

Entrenched in the third-base dugout, a quartet of MLB Draft hopefuls were in attendance for the ceremony. Ashe Russell, Brendan Rodgers, Mike Nikorak and Garrett Whitley sit quietly with their parents, watching the scene and occasionally interacting with a former player or two who come over to introduce themselves.

Friends and family cheer for No. 3 overall pick Brandon Rogers during the 2015 MLB Draft. Photo by Clayton Collier
Friends and family cheer for No. 3 overall pick Brandon Rogers during the 2015 MLB Draft. Photo by Clayton Collier

As the names get called, polite applause ensues. When one of the four prospects in-studio gets picked, pandemonium ensues. The outfield stands erupt as if the home team hit a walk-off home run. Rodgers was the first, being picked third overall to the Colorado Rockies. He puts on his jersey, shakes Manfred’s hand and is soon after interviewed by Port Jefferson native Sam Ryan. He then takes a phone call from Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich, who playfully asks, “Are you still breathing?”

Russell, Whitley and Nikorak follow the same routine once their names are called, going to the Royals, Rays and Rockies, respectively. Nikorak, Rodgers and their parents celebrate the fact that they’ll be teammates again, having been on the field together for the Under Armour All-America Game.

As the final names were called and the cameras went dark, the draftees and their representatives clear out, and all that was left was a mess of papers and water bottles scattered throughout the stadium and stands.

It’s a unique phenomenon to observe the beginnings of the young athlete’s careers. In 2011, we witnessed a young man by the name of Mike Trout get called up on stage to receive his Los Angeles Angels jersey. Four years later, he’s the face of the game. How long until we see Rodgers, Russell, Nikorak or Whitley in the big leagues? Only time will tell.

Russell best explained the experience before the night began, when he was pacing along the third baseline of Studio 42 in nervousness. Around 10 minutes after being selected by the Royals, Clayton followed up to see how the no longer prospect, but draftee, now felt.

“I’m so excited,” he said. “I can’t believe this is happening right now. This is a dream come true.”

For Collier, the experience has had similar effects.

“As a young sports journalist, it is certainly rewarding to have the opportunity to cover these type of events,” he said. “WSOU at Seton Hall, as a professionally run radio station, offers a number of tremendous opportunities for students such as the MLB Draft. It’s events like these that help you gain the experience necessary to be successful in the media industry. I’ve worked hard at it for several years now, so to be able to cover an event like the MLB Draft for WSOU is very much satisfying.”

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Kollin McDonald, fourth from left in top row with trophy, and his teammates and coaches after the game against Longwood on Friday, where he received the game ball and MVP trophy. Photo from Tom Femminella

Sometimes it’s not the wins or losses that matter most in a game, it’s the bonds formed when playing.

For Ward Melville senior Kollin McDonald, he realized how strong that bond was with his basketball teammates after the loss of his mother last week.

The guard darted to the hospital last Monday after receiving a text message that his mother was rushed there. Mary McDonald had cancer for seven years, starting with breast cancer, and after she was in remission was told it had come back more aggressively, and spread throughout her body.

Kollin McDonald and his mother Mary, while pumpkin picking this year. Photo from Kollin McDonald

The team attended the wake, and head coach Tom Femminella said despite it being an emotional evening, he thought it made it a little easier for his athlete to have his team’s support.

“As a coach in any sport you press the kids on family — family is important,” he said. “When you’re actually there and someone needs you when the chips aredown, it shows a lot of resolve that will hopefully transfer onto the court and will make these kids closer for the season and hopefully for the rest of their lives.”

Femminella invited McDonald’s close friend and teammate Chris Woods to ask McDonald if he would play as a starter in Friday’s game — the same day as his mother’s funeral.

“For him it was the most exciting news,” Woods said. “His family was all excited once they heard too, and they came after the funeral to the game.”

Being that McDonald is not normally a starter, it was a memorable moment for him walking out on the court.

“It was honestly an honor to be asked to play ” McDonald said. “It was more of a ‘getting past and moving on’ thing because once I got asked, I was very emotional, but I knew at that point that we were a strong team and that they had my back with anything.”

McDonald said the memories of his mother and thinking about her every day is what gets him through, but it is also the love from his coach and teammates, and it showed that night on the court.

The senior started off the evening with two rebounds in a 50-40 win over Longwood, and it ignited the team.

“Those were probably the two most aggressive rebounds I’ve ever had — ever, in any game I’ve ever played,” he said with a laugh. “It was very emotional watching the tape afterward because I knew [those rebounds] were for my mom, and it was a great feeling.”

Kollin McDonald and his mother Mary after his sixth-grade graduation. Photo from Kollin McDonald

The team wore pink socks in support of breast cancer awareness to the game and will continue to wear them through the rest of the season, Femminella said, adding that he will also be wearing special sneakers to support his player.

“It was more important that he was getting back to a little bit of normalcy,” Femminella said. “And then we brought him the trophy and the game ball, and he got the MVP [title] because he was the MVP. He inspired the rest of the kids. If he can be there and he can show this effort and be strong, why can’t they?”

Woods also said it was great to see his friend and teammate in high spirits.

“He had a big smile on his face and was able to go out there and start the game,” Woods said, adding that he and his teammates were also grinning from ear-to-ear and leaping off the bench when McDonald scored. “It helped him get his mind off of things to get him out there. It was the best feeling for all of us when he got those rebounds — he played his heart out.”

McDonald said it’s meant everything to have his school’s support.

“Having a group of guys to talk to at any point and any time in my life,” he said, “it’s a great feeling.”

McDonald thanked his teammates and coaches for their support after what he said is his most memorable game , adding that he thought wearing the pink socks for the rest of the season is a nice way for them to support him and his family for the remainder of the year.

“We’re taking this tough event as a bonding moment for all of us,” Woods said. “I think Kollin is going through a tough time, but the pink socks represent how we’ve all become brothers, and we’re all going to be there for each other no matter what happens.”

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